Tuesday, February 02, 2010

He's Got To Be AVing Us On

Gordon Brown, The Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats want to change the way we vote in the UK. What is most annoying to me about this is that campaigners will now be out in force making dubious claims about First Past The Post (FPTP) being a broken system or a system linked to the past. Calls will be made for “reform” when and where none is needed. It is nonsensical doublespeak from people who want greater influence within Government but cannot muster serious and sensible proposals in which to entice sufficient people to vote for them. It is an end to the notion of seeking majority rule. This kind of nonsense is usually restricted to the Liberal Democrats who have always wanted to do away with a plurality system in favour of something similar to the horrific system currently employed to elect MEPs.  An attack from all sides must not be allowed to kill off one of the strengths of our system.

The current system is not perfect, but it does provide safeguards, to us the electorate rather than to the job security of MP’s. It is completely unacceptable that a governing party should be allowed to propose swingeing electoral reform legislation through a pronounced death rattle. It is an attempt to move the goal posts to avoid political annihilation for the Labour Party… If they push this, they could find that this backfires massively.

The present system is not fair but this in not because of the way people vote, but because of the current mess with the electoral boundaries that favour Labour so heavily. If we need electoral reform it is to make more independent and make it simpler for the Electoral Boundary Commission to redraw constituency borders so to even out the population within each constituency. As at present, the notional idea is that each MP represents a constituency based on population size rather than geographic size or reach – hence why there are so many MP’s in London and the cities, and fewer in less densely populated areas, like the Highlands & Islands of Scotland for example.

So it is not the voting system that is causing distortions in the House of Commons return, and disproportionately represented constituencies - it is the boundaries because they vary quite a lot by population size.  Because of the of way the system is currently set up it takes a lot to make changes happen. The Electoral commission can currently allow for upto 10% disparity from ideal population size of a single constituency. Add to this the fact that reviews tend to happen every 7 years or so and there are a number of constituencies that have declined in population size in the last 15 years that are as yet unaffected by a boundary change, and likewise constituencies that are much greater in population than 15 years ago. Such disparity, and the difficulty of impartially enforcing change means that this is a contributory reason to why the Conservative may need to poll over 10% of the national popular vote more than Labour at the next election to get a working majority, and yet Labour could achieve a working majority from receiving an equal share of the vote to the Conservatives.  It would be unfair to use this as a reasoning for a change in the way we vote.

I’ll skip the part about not being David Cameron’s biggest fan, because he and Eric Pickles are dead right about the need to implement a quick Electoral Commission(s) review if they win the next election, and I also agree that a cut of about 10% of total MPs for the election following is both achievable and positive. The Electoral Commission should be allowed to bring in changes when disparity reaches 5% as well as being instructed to speed up from a 7 year review cycle. This is exactly the right thing to do; it should even up the electoral map, and would put Labour and Conservatives on an even playing field. Every other Party needs to make real arguments and proposals that the UK population want to hear about and endorse before they come close to power. That is a beautiful thing, as it protects the notion of a majority vote ruling – which in eight or ten years will just as evenly and fairly suit Labour if the nations mood switches away from the Conservatives.  This then, an existing Conservative propsal would address and resolve the current problem of disparity.

Gordon Brown, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and all other interested parties will be well aware of The Conservative plan, and thier idea's and their success is rooted in there being an unbalanced system  so the Tory proposal is what scares them and is why I think they are coming out now.

Proportional Representation (PR) needs to be mentioned, even though it is not the current Labour proposal. It is the fetish of choice for the Liberal Democrats.  It is a tool that would encroach upon the UK people a form of Government that essentially could never really be changed. Our system, at least notionally if not in reality allows us to throw out wholesale a Government that is unpopular – you just don’t get that under PR. It would also be an end to the Constituency link where we all have a local MP, in favour of voting regions whereby the fifth or sixth most voted for person or party can still get a seat in Parliament. It is the very reason why the Greens and the BNP are able to sit in the EU Parliament. I repeat, it is not a method that seeks to represent the majority view, which as history has and will need to show over and over again is how the healthiest and most liberal democracies function best.  It is the electoral choice of Lembit Opik, so can we all agree to drop it from all serious discussion please.

Alternative Voting (AV) or Alternative Voting Plus (AV+) which comes sometimes with Additional Members Voting (a kind of PR system added on to a run off or AV vote) can, depending on its precise form be not altogether unhealthy, but is very, very different and inferior to the system we already have.  Unlike PR it can be used in a manner which maintains the constituency link meaning we can retain the traditional MP and Constituent relationship that serves us pretty well.

However, it is somewhat ridiculous in its conception that it requires voters to rank a ticket of candidates, and if there are 12 candidates you would need to number 1 – 12 to cast a valid vote. So, by definition, we would all have to learn about all 12 candidates, so as to be able to participate fully. We actually need to decide who we dislike and in what order that they should be ranked in.  This of course will not happen, and voters will only rank deliberately on their favourites, i.e. 1, 1 and 2 or even in some cases 1, 2 and 3 – but mostly they will then just randomly fill in the rest of the numbers, maybe sparing a thought to note who they find particularly displeasing to very last. This itself can produce obvious and unfair disparities with the easy example being that a party ranked alphabetically higher is naturally likely to get a better vote in the 2’s, 3’s and 4’s than a party lower down the ballot paper because voters could be inclined to vote to their higher preference only, then fill in the rest of the boxes so as to make sure their top choice is registered. Such a situation immediately hands a party like the BNP an advantage over say UKIP simply by being higher on the ballot paper. Also, a paper that requires 12 separate numbers is more likely to become spoiled or be presented as unreadable as a paper that requires a simple x. Even if this is restricted so that you vote 1-5 of any number that might be running there are disparities and unconscious preferences granted.

Thirdly, it requires people like me to vote in preference to Labour, Lib Dems and BNP and I really am not in mind to do so, I dislike them all. I am sure many others would say the same about their own collection of parties. It also takes ages to accurately count and rank the votes, so the whole overnight election coverage would again be under threat as it would be impossible to get the results out. 
I said AV is not completely unhealthy because when it is limited to a second preference vote and so long as there is no Additional Members Voting, that is to say you only vote 1 and 2 on a ballot and stick to a constituency linked vote; this is much closer to first past the post system and eliminates (or limits) many of the problems already mentioned. However, I am not so sure that this is what is being offered by Labour.

I think the second preference system works well when employed on the London Mayoral elections because it seeks to find a candidate that can poll 50% of first preference votes for an outright win, and only goes to the second vote if that has not happened, and run off only the two candidates who have already polled the highest. This is an example of a race where it is as much or more about the candidate than the party. When ranking 1 & 2 only, can we really realise a benefit worthy of moving from FPTP to considering the second candidate as sweepingly beneficial to our overall system as to be necessary or warranting of the expense and effort? I think not.

I do not believe that the permutations of AV and related systems will sit easy in the minds of the British electorate, and I really think we might as well focus on demanding stronger arguments and commitments in the present system in preference to concession voting. For a greater level of accountability we absolutely should insist upon any party candidate, whether a sitting MP or not submitting themselves to a caucus or open primary vote before each election is held. This would give voters a greater say in who is selected locally, and would allow people to select candidates, not the Party hierarchies, and could eliminate the notion of MP’s in safe seats doing little – People could be consulted on both the candidate and the Party and that would be truly a great electoral reform. There is much more we could do to improve our system without touching the FPTP system, we could implement a recall system, allow for referendums, and we could push for the weakening or abolition of the whipping system.

I would perhaps support AV if it were proposed as a method for upper house elections, should such elections ever be granted to the population of the UK, if the FPTP system was still being used in the Commons. AV over a geographical constituency, such as by City and council would provide a change in the way we draw the second house (in comparison to the commons), and would then not be as feared a unicameral system spread across two houses. An elected upper house would be the kind of real democratic reform we dared not be offered for fear of voters actually being listened to and for a greater fear the MP’s might actually be held to account by the upper house.

I also think it is important to really look at who really wants a change to the voting system and why? I believe Labour are misguided if they think a PR or AV system will benefit them greatly, as they will forever be beholden to the Liberal Democrats at everything they do. The Lib Dems will be the tie-break party that will influence elections more so than now, without really challenging for power or having a proper mandate for that control. The reason they poll around 20% now is that they are often a protest or tactical vote against either Labour or the Conservatives. This is probably entirely the point... Labour are courting The Liberal Democrats now for the eventuality of a Hung Parliament when agenda item number one will be a change from FPtP for Team LD. 

I wonder also if there is an EU influence here? Much of Europe work their Governments and Legislatures in a different way, and seek elected officials based on PR votes. It suits the European idea of a political or elite class as it is much harder to get rid of politicians who are corrupt or simply not very good. It is noticeably beneficial to the EU elite in particular that the PR elected EU Parliament is not only toothless in the little power it has, but elected by PR so as to make it hard for any single grouping to strongly voice an opinion on anything. It is illegal to draw MEPs by any method other than an approved version of PR and EU Sceptics will agree that this is part of what is so frustrating about the EU, all the power is centralised, and even the supposed democratic arm, the EU Parliament is not about seeking a mandate drawn from a representation of the EU peoples majority opinion – it was conceived as a faux parliament to make the EU as a whole look democratic when it clearly isn’t.

I would contend that the First Past the Post system empowers the UK Government to speak unquestionably as a voice on behalf of the UK population, where as I feel we may question that authority more if we broke that link. This is another creeping move to take controls out of the hands of people and increase the control of those people who wish to sit in Government. A stealth undermining of our democracy.

Bottom line is, if we change the system, I will oppose any changes (not reform, changes!) that move away from the notion of making parties seek a majority mandate in the House of Commons.


TheBoilingFrog said...

Ultimately, Brown has no intention of changing the voting system; not only will it endanger Labour safe seats but there's not enough parliamentary time to get it on to the stature book.

Also many Labour MPs will resist this, it’s just headlining-grabbing nonsense.

This is all about hating the Tories and trying to portray them as opponents of 'reform’ who are supporters of the ‘gentleman’s club’ status quo.

What Brown doesn't understand is that most people no longer care; they just want an election regardless of the system used.

This is the idea of a government that knows it's going to lose

Witterings from Witney said...

Damn god post G!

FPTP has to remain, it is not the system but the bloody candidates that are the problem!

Oh and then Ukip policy is AV - but hey, every party has its 'idiot policy'!

Daniel1979 said...

Boiling Frog - I hope you are right.

Witterings - Thanks.

Mike Spilligan said...

An excellent ananysis; and I want only to say my view is almost exactly the same as BF's.
I'm not as confident about Labour losing the GE when the Tories are getting themselves deeper into "climate change" at a time when they ought to be wriggling free and abandoning that sinking (stinking?) ship. It's putting a lot of people off.
Govermentitus has become a regular read of mine, btw.

Daniel1979 said...

Thanks Mike, I am glad that this blog has become a regular read for you.

Tarquin said...

Daniel, I find I must disagree

Although it is true part of the problem is boundaries, the minority aspect of FPTP is choking politics

The principle reason no-one votes is because the parties are barely different (right now particularly) - all they have to do is win a few swing seats and then hold onto their safe seats - something like 70% of seats will never change hands because of a minority vote that can't be defeated in a plurality system, meaning lots of votes are wasted - that's not right

and of course it means the parties can be lazy and stick anyone they want in the seat - as you say, the idea of a constituency actually electing an MP who does their bidding is long gone - we already have the worst part of a PR system, there's no scrutiny of candidates, and then people get a choice between Cameron and Brown, a lesser of two evils decision

I can't say I know a perfect solution though...

You are of course right about Brown, utter cock

gotta go